Put Your Lights On

12.15.2011 (Why on earth does it take me so long between creation and posting? God only knows.)

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This is a FFVII fic by kleptomaniac0. I own no characters except those you haven't heard of, meaning the ones I've made. Normally I'm averse to posting something new while I have multiple works in progress, but this OC, the first OC I ever created, has been banging against the walls of my head ever since Advent Children came in out Japan. So I'm letting her out before she drives me crazy.

This will be a lot more unguarded than my other works, meaning it'll be sloppier. I'm writing this to get it out of my head and though I always appreciate reviews and constructive criticism, I probably won't be looking at them until the story's done.

Who am I kidding? I need feedback like sunlight. Drop me a line, you know you want to.

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Chapter One Hundred and Eleven

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The familiar mixture of belligerence, dread, and contempt made Cloud walk differently as soon as he stepped into Nibelheim. He couldn't help it. Automatically his hands clenched, ready to strike someone throwing a punch at his back. He dropped his stance about half an inch, keeping his knees flexed for a quick burst of speed. He ducked his head just a little, preparing himself for inevitable hurt. All of these actions were as involuntary as the emotions roiling around in his stomach.

"I'm not a kid anymore," his sensible self whispered. "I'm a Shin-Ra MP and I've got real training under my belt. No one's going to jump me for the hell of it."

Still, Cloud walked much more quickly than usual as he made a beeline for his mother's house. It looked exactly the same as it had two years ago—only the flowers had changed, from yellow to something multicolored. It was springtime in the mountains and the tough little alpine blooms waved bravely in the biting wind and thin sunshine. Mom always used native flowers for her window boxes, never minding the snickers and eye-rolls from the other ladies. At least Mom's flowers never perished of blight or frost. That made Cloud smile a bit. His mom's flowers were tough, just like her.

"Just like me," he reminded himself as he stepped up to the door and knocked. As he waited, Cloud looked over his shoulder at the town. Nibelheim looked the exact same, and for a moment he felt a swelling of emotion in his chest that was not negatively based. He hadn't realized until now how much he'd missed the mountains, the crisp and clean air, the view that went on forever. Midgar was awe-inspiring, but somewhat terrifying. When Cloud looked out at the mountains, he felt something in his chest unbind. He sighed deeply in relief…

…and then saw her.

There was no mistaking that face, that fall of rich brown hair, and that easy, confident carriage that spoke of popularity and comfort. Still, Cloud did a double take when he saw the tiny waist, the generous hips, and the…the…

"Are those D cups? No, they can't be. E's? F's?"

Tifa Lockhart had grown up and grown HOT. Cloud felt a little lightheaded as blood rushed to his face and his dick in equal measure, then immediately kicked himself for being a fool. What had he expected? Tifa had obviously bloomed late—so what? Besides, he had seen breasts before. Well, not actual real breasts, but he'd read girly mags and there were tons of huge-chested women strutting around Midgar, wearing low-cut tops and tight shiny shirts that left nothing to the imagination...

But Tifa was not dressed like that. Instead of emphasizing her bountiful chest, Tifa wore a miniskirt that made Cloud stare at her long legs and shapely derriere even from all the way across the town square. She exuded so much confidence that it was impossible to not look at and admire all of her—her boobs were great, but the whole package together was perfection. No amount of tight clothing or makeup in Midgar could match Tifa's natural beauty, and with a pang of very familiar self-pity, Cloud wondered if she would recognize him. He didn't think she would. And he didn't want her to, either. He hadn't fulfilled their promise.

"If I'm ever in trouble, my hero will come and rescue me. I want to experience that at least once."

Yet it was obvious that Tifa had not only gotten hot, but strong. Cloud could see the subtle play of her well-developed muscles under her smooth, tanned skin, and instinctively he knew that Tifa could probably punch a hell of a lot harder than he could. By the time Cloud had left, Tifa had already been taking martial arts classes for five years, and she'd already been damn good. If she was still taking them now, Tifa could take care of herself.

And where'd that leave the "hero"?

"The hero doesn't exist," Cloud thought bitterly. "I failed. I'm not a SOLDIER, and I'll never get famous. I won't ever be able to save her."

The door opened, making Cloud spin around. He got the second shock of the day looking at the middle-aged woman standing in the door. She was blonde. Her eyes were blue. He recognized her face, and yet…

"Was Mom always so old?"

How had so many wrinkles gotten on her face in two years? With alarm, Cloud saw gray hairs he'd known for sure had never been there before. He looked at the hand she had on the doorknob and saw tiny blue veins bumping up under the thin skin. Even her skin, which Cloud had always remembered as tanned, looked faded and dry.

"Is this really my mom?" Cloud wondered as he looked into the familiar and yet alien face. His mother's eyes, as cornflower blue as his own, darkened as she looked at him, head tilted slightly in confusion. Then she stared.

"Oh my god," Ma croaked, her free hand going to her mouth. "My son…"

Cloud opened his mouth to reply, but to his horror, her eyes filled up with tears.

"Oh no…" She began to cry. "Oh no, no…"

Cloud was mortified. He looked down at the ground, unable to say a word. Was she that disappointed he hadn't come home covered in glory? He wanted to turn and run away, but his feet were rooted to the front step. Hot, bitter shame burned in his stomach.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled.

"Please…" Ma wept. "Please tell me… Did he die quickly?"

What?

"Did he suffer at all?"

Cloud's head came up. Gone was the shame. It had transmuted into shock and something a great deal like… Anger.

"I knew I shouldn't have let him go," Ma wailed. "He was too young, he was just a baby—"

"Ma," he said loudly, and was gratified when she stopped crying immediately. "I'm not dead."

"Oh…?" Cloud swore he saw the gears turning. "Oh! OH!"

And the next thing he knew, Cloud was being crushed in a maternal embrace that simultaneously crushed his ribs and his dignity. For a little woman whose head just brushed his chin (and when had that happened? They'd been the same height when he'd left), Ma had a grip like a bear.

"You bad boy!" She let him go and started hitting him, making him yelp. "How could you let me go on like that? I thought you were dead!"

"Thanks for believing in me, Ma. Why did you think I was dead, anyway?" Cloud demanded as he stepped into the house. As his mother shut the door behind him, Cloud took a deep breath, and despite his ire, a shudder of relaxation went through him. The smell of baking bread and the herb bundles drying on the ceiling instantly made him feel safe again. But at the same time, really fucking annoyed.

"Because the last time a MP came to the front door, it was to tell me that your father had died in the war," Ma snapped back. Guilt made Cloud squirm a little, especially when she added, "Why didn't you take your mask off?"

"I dunno," he mumbled, suddenly feeling all of eight years old again.

"Ugh! Well, fine. Take it off now."

Cloud pulled off the mask and cap and turned to face his mother. She walked up to him and took his face in her hands, her eyes now bright blue and searching. Her gaze was more intense than he'd ever remembered, even with the tears brimming over.

"You look so much like your father," she said finally. She kissed him soundly on both cheeks, which was embarrassing but par for the course. "My darling boy. Look at you, you've grown so tall. And skinny!" She pinched his arm, making him yelp again. "They're not feeding you properly, are they? I didn't think so. Sit down. I'll make you a sandwich."

"I'm not really hungry—"

"Sit!" She said fiercely, and Cloud sat. Ma went into the kitchen humming, and Cloud looked around the house with eyes that felt somehow way, way older. The cabin was the same as he remembered, right down to the rickety boiler in the corner and the crates of stuff that Ma never put away. Cloud took a seat at the kitchen table, which was a long shelf up against the wall with two stools stuffed under it. As soon as Cloud sat down, the stool wobbled. Absently Cloud hooked his feet in the legs and began to wiggle back and forth, making the feet knock on the floor in time.

"Stop that," said Ma just as absently, and Cloud obeyed.

Eventually she came to the table with a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. Cloud sighed deeply in satisfaction and Ma watched him eat, smiling the whole time.

"I really missed your cooking," said Cloud frankly when he was done. "And I missed you. Life in the city isn't what I thought it would be."

"It never is," said Ma sagely. "Did you meet the President?"

"President Shin-Ra? No." He chewed his lip. "Buuuut… I AM here with the General."

"That's nice," said Ma evenly. Cloud tried not to be disappointed: his mother had made no secret of how she felt about his career choice, and he was sure she was hoping he'd come back to Nibelheim and take up some sort of job in town. After all, enlisting in the military had been what had killed his father. Still...

"It's a big deal, Ma," said Cloud, knowing any attempt to impress her was stupid and yet trying anyway. "Not everybody gets to work with him."

"So why do you?"

Ugh, he hated when she asked stuff like that. Doubting him and shit. And making him doubt himself. "I… I'm along because I'm a local," said Cloud. "I speak the dialect here."

"Hmph," said Ma. "Nothing else?"

Cloud glared. "Sorry if I disappointed you by not coming home a SOLDIER First Class, Ma."

"Oh, stop that," said Ma, smacking him lightly on the arm. "You know what I mean. Haven't you learned anything while you've been gone?"

"I've learned lots, Ma," said Cloud, getting to his feet. "I should really get back to patrol. I'm supposed to be canvassing the locals."

"The neighbors?" She asked archly. "Let me guess, you'll start with the Lockharts."

The name brought a flush of memory racing over Cloud's skin and he shook his head. "No," he said immediately and winced as his voice cracked in the most horrible way imaginable. Ma smiled knowingly.

"Tifa has grown into a very fine young woman," she said. "Not just physically, but in personality too. She's very kind. And she's single!"

"Ma!"

"Oh, I'm not saying you should ask her on a date—immediately, that is," said Ma, her smile broadening. "But you know, the Evans boy—you remember him, don't you? He used to beat you so bad—now he's got a special gleam in his eye for Miss Lockhart too, and he's filled out like a bull."

"Great," Cloud grumbled.

"You should really say hello, you know," said Ma, sounding serious. As Cloud frowned at her, she said, "Tifa was all a-twitter about the Shin-Ra coming into town. I think she was hoping to see you."

"She was hoping to see the General," Cloud said ruthlessly. He had a realistic view of the world, after all. "I'm sure she knew he was coming, her dad being the mayor and all."

"How do you know that? For certain, anyway?" Ma looked at him pointedly. "I see city life hasn't stiffened your spine much."

"City life, or being back here with you?" Cloud thought in exasperation.

"You're a soldier now, honey," said Ma. "You should go after her. Asking a girl out isn't as scary as some of the things you've faced, now is it?"

Cloud mentally weighed the terror of asking Tifa out versus hitting a dragon with a truck. One of those scenarios had a higher chance of death than the other, but he wasn't sure which scenario it might be…

"Is Tifa still taking her martial arts classes?" He asked.

"I think she is."

"Yeah…" Cloud shook his head. "Asking Tifa out is scarier."

"Oh, Cloud!"

"She won't just break my heart, she'll roundhouse-kick it into orbit."

"Cloud Strife, don't be ridiculous," said Ma. If she'd been standing, her hands would have been on her hips. Cloud braced himself for a tirade. Instead, he got a shock when Ma simply threw her hands up and went, "I give up. You're a man now and you'll make your own decisions. God help me abide by them. Have another sandwich."

"No thanks Ma, I'm full—"

"No you're not. Sit down and have another sandwich."

Cloud began to edge toward the door. "I really do have to get back to patrol, Ma," he said, cringing a little as his mother's eyes narrowed a degree more with every step he took. "I'll see you when I can. We're moving out first thing tomorrow. Maybe we can do dinner?"

"Maybe?" Her voice was ominous.

"We will, definitely," said Cloud. He was nearly out. Grabbing the doorknob, Cloud called, "I love you!" before making good his escape. Automatically he locked the door as he pulled it shut; as it clicked closed behind him, Cloud sighed deeply in relief and then turned toward the inn. He jumped as the door unlocked.

"You forgot this," said Ma, holding out his mask and cap. Red with embarrassment, Cloud quickly pulled both of them on, then had to lift the mask to give his mother a kiss on the cheek. Fortunately there was no one around. "I'll see you tomorrow for dinner, Cloud. 7pm sharp."

"Yes, Ma."

"And bring a friend, if you feel like it."

"Yes, Ma." Personally Cloud couldn't think of anyone who would want to come—well, Zack might. He'd tell Zack. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, my boy."

And that was that. Cloud walked back to the inn, feeling somewhat strange and at the same time, grown-up. Two years ago, his mother had been weeping and clinging onto him, begging him not to go to the Shin-Ra. Now she was respecting his decisions, letting him do his own thing... It was nice, but it also felt weird.

His stomach full of delicious homemade food, Cloud soon felt sleepy as soon as he crossed the town square. The inn's lights were on, but it was still bright enough out that Cloud saw Tifa clearly as she came out of the inn, chatting over her shoulder with someone—one of her friends, probably. At once, Cloud's food-coma haze burnt up in a shot of pure panic. Cloud looked around desperately for something to hide behind. Nothing. Shit! Then suddenly Tifa was walking toward him, and Cloud just barely managed to stop himself from running away. God, she looked good! And he looked...

"Like a failure. Like a dumb idiot who can't get into the SOLDIER program, who is definitely NOT a SOLDIER First-Class... Who hides his face in his own hometown..."

He ducked his head and walked forward briskly, determined to get this over with as soon as possible. He would just walk by her, not engage at all, and then go get a shower and a rest. And that would be it. Maybe in five years—maybe ten—he'd finally be enough of a man to look her in the eye. Until then, Cloud swore not to look at or talk to Tifa Lockhart unless—

"Excuse me."

"Shit..." Cloud cringed as he turned to look at her. His mask was opaque to all but him, and he saw Tifa in a sort of golden haze in the setting sunlight. He would have to respond now, or look like a huge asshole.

"Yes?" He said, trying not to make his voice crack again.

"You're in the army, right?"

"Yes, I am."

Tifa bit her lip. "Do you know SOLDIERS at all?"

Uh-oh. "No."

"But you're working with two on this mission, right?"

"Right."

"So..." She scuffed her toe on the ground. "Could you ask them something for me? There's a boy from town who said he was gonna be a SOLDIER—can you ask them if they know him? Or if he made it?"

"Why do you care?" Cloud asked, unable to stop himself.

Something in his tone must have set her off, because Tifa looked at him with a bit of a glare. "Am I not supposed to?" She challenged. "He's my friend. Of course I care."

A friend? She thought he was a friend? Cloud felt weak in the knees as a hot, hard rush of sheer joy surged through his veins. He hadn't forgotten about calling her out two years ago to tell her he was leaving town, and he'd been floored when she'd actually showed up. And yet...

"You're so stupid," his nasty inner voice whispered. "That didn't mean she liked you. She probably went out on a dare. And now? You're wetting yourself over being called 'a friend'. That's sad."

It wasn't often that Cloud told his inner voice to stuff it, but now was definitely one of those times.

"Well, I can pass the message along," he said, trying to sound casual and not like a gleeful idiot. "Who do you want me to ask about?"

Tifa ducked her head. Cloud stared, unable to believe his eyes, as a fine blush bloomed in her cheeks. Tifa was unbelievably beautiful, but now Cloud felt like his insides were melting before her expression.

"His name is Cloud Strife," she said, wringing her hands a little. "He should be sixteen now. He's got blond hair and blue eyes."

"Good looking?" Cloud asked, feeling giddy. In a second, he felt good enough to yank the mask off his head and damn the consequences.

"Yeah..." Her blush intensified. "Well, he was when I saw him last. I don't know how he looks now. He might have grown up weird-looking or something."

Anxiety made Cloud's insides twist. Had he grown up weird-looking? He knew girls liked beards and moustaches, and while not having to shave was nice, what would Tifa think of the fact he had no facial hair? And that he was as thin as a rail? He'd had to cut his hair for the army too. What if she thought his hair was stupid?

"I wonder if he's made First Class yet," Tifa mused, and Cloud's innards wrenched. "He always said he would, but he kind of had a short temper and I don't know..."

Tifa nibbled on one of her nails, lost in thought, and Cloud might have gone into a spiral of angst and self-pity. However, at that moment, the inn door opened again and Cloud saw Zack poking his head out. Instantly terror seized him as Zack looked at him and opened his mouth.

"Well, I'll pass that along," Cloud babbled. "Thanks so much, Miss Lockhart. I'm sure I'll see you around. Bye now!"

And he ran before Zack could yell "Strife, get over here!" and ruin his life forever. Zack's eyebrows lifted, but he only stepped aside and let Cloud dash into the inn and up the stairs. Cloud sprinted up the stairs and tripped on the top step, sprawling on the landing and nearly hitting his head on the wall. Zack laughed and came up the stairs as Cloud pushed himself to his feet.

"What the hell was that about?" Zack asked, gesturing at Cloud's flight path.

"It's, uh… Complicated."

Zack's purple eyes glowed a bit, and a slow grin spread over his face. Waggling his eyebrows outrageously, he started elbowing Cloud in the ribs.

"Eh? Eh? Eh?"

"Quit it!" Cloud batted at Zack. Normally he hated being touched, but Zack was just so... Zack, that Cloud didn't mind at all. It was even kinda funny.

"So that's Tiiiiifa, eh?" Zack's eyebrows looked like they were about to jump off his face. "Good job, man! She's pretty cute."

"Shut up!"

"Awww, don't get like that," Zack said jovially, throwing an arm around his shoulders. "So? How is she? Still as nice as you remember?"

"...yeah," Cloud mumbled. He winced as Zack laughed. "Come on, it's not that funny."

"I'm happy for you, I'm not laughing at you," said Zack. "And just so you know, I think this is gonna be a cupcake mission. If you wanna sneak out and, ya know—I'll cover for ya."

" I don't think that's going to happen," said Cloud. "She didn't recognize me."

"Who would, with that thing over your face?" Zack flicked the mask. "Why didn't you take it off?"

"Because she thinks I'm in SOLDIER," Cloud burst out. "If she finds out I'm not—"

"Oh." Zack unlooped his arm from Cloud's shoulders. As he leaned back one hip and rubbed his chin, he said, "Well... Hmm. Just tell her you're in training."

"Can't I just borrow your uniform or something?"

Cloud instantly realized he'd said something wrong when Zack's friendly purple eyes went flat. When he spoke, his voice sounded casual, but there was something in it that made Cloud wilt a little inside with every word.

"No," Zack said firmly, almost coldly. "I don't think that would be a good idea. First off, it's illegal to impersonate a SOLDIER. Second off, you'd be lying to your girl, which is even less cool. Third off, my uniform is not a costume. I earned this, Cloud."

"I'm sorry," Cloud said, trembling. He felt six years old again, getting yelled at in school by his favorite teacher. He looked down at the ground, unable to meet the disapproval in Zack's eyes.

Then Zack put his hand on his shoulder. Cloud couldn't lift his head, but he could hear the warmth coming back into Zack's voice.

"It's alright, Cloud. You know, I believe that one day, you're gonna earn this uniform too. And you'll be able to carry yourself with the pride of a SOLDIER. I mean it." He squeezed Cloud's shoulder. "Come on. It's late. Get a shower and get to sleep. We're starting off for the reactor first thing in the morning, and our guide's meeting us at 7am."

"Guide?" Cloud looked up in surprise. "But..."

"I know, I said that too," said Zack with a shrug. "But the General wanted a guide who's been living in town, so I called around and got us one. Don't worry." His eyes started twinkling. "I think you'll like who I got."

"Who you got?" Cloud asked stupidly, and as Zack's grin widened, he gasped, "No. No! Are you serious?"

"She volunteered," said Zack with another little shrug. Chuckling a bit, he added, "I thought you'd be happy."

"I..." Cloud seized his head in both hands and shook himself. "Auuuugh, why!"

"You'll live," said Zack, laughing. "You might even score. It's all in the way you look at it."

"Easy for you to say!"

"Easy for you to do, also. If you want to." Zack glanced over his shoulder as Cloud heard footsteps. Marcon and Dreen had apparently returned. "Quick. If you run, you'll get the shower first. Go, go."

Cloud went. He would have liked to stomp, but when he went into the communal room they were all sharing, the lights were off and the General was already in bed. So Cloud tiptoed into the bathroom and took a quick shower, turning off the water whenever he could—most hot water heaters in Nibelheim were the old tank style that didn't have a lot to spare. Even with his care, the hot water ran out by the time Marcon wanted to bathe, but that just meant he bitched at Dreen instead of Cloud. Zack and Sephiroth had already taken theirs, so everyone was in bed by 10pm. It wasn't long before they all fell asleep, but Cloud stayed up for what felt like years. He stared at the ceiling, afraid to shut his eyes lest he imagine horrible ways for Tifa to discover who he was, each scenario more embarrassing and shameful than the last. The snarky part of his mind that never ever shut up noted that he was actually freaking himself out about the possibility of freaking out, and that was pretty stupid. Cloud finally fell asleep fretting about mountain winds stealing his mask, Marcon yanking it off in a fit of assholishness, and if Tifa would think he'd grown up weird after all.

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A/N: Writing an angry, resentful, and paranoid kind of character is a bit of a stretch for me. I normally take a positive spin on everything, so Cloud—whom I always imagine takes a negative view of neutral situations—is kind of a little bitch to write. I find myself speaking aloud whenever I write his dialogue, and usually have to repeat his lines a few times. In my mind, Cloud is not only a little paranoid, but he has a problem with his tone of voice that makes him sound perpetually angry, so people always get their hackles up in response. It's a negative feedback loop that ends in someone getting smacked.

I did like writing Cloud and his mom, though. His relationship with his mom in the game is so vague, and as I recently read on TVTropes, it's entirely likely that the one flashback scene we saw is actually an amalgamated memory from many experiences in his life. Basically, his mom said all those words at some point in time—we just don't know when.

So I ran with it a bit, making Cloud and his mom have a somewhat adversarial relationship that was tons of fun to write but also just weird. I personally don't like it when moms address their children with the half-insulting tone that I imagine Cloud's mother to have, but I guess some moms are kind of like that. However, Cloud does always interpret everything in a negative light, so maybe that insulting tone is a figment of our imaginations.

What else... Oh yeah, Zack and the uniform. For some reason, I really like that snippet of a scene. Not sure why. Proud Zack is proud.

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